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When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives Thursday in Rome he will not be short of compatriots to exchange pleasantries with in the short amount of sightseeing built into the schedule for his state visit, the first of three stops in Europe, which will take him to France and Monaco, too.

Italy’s “eternal city” has been a magnet for increasing Chinese tourism and regardless of season Rome’s Fiumicino airport is crowded with Chinese tourist groups clogging up security gates and the duty-free stores.


The profitable year-round Chinese influx is welcomed by many Italians — the newcomers make up for a dip in tourist numbers since the 2008 global financial crash from the U.S. and Italy’s European neighbors.

But Chinese tourism is not, according to some analysts, all that it might seem.

Beijing is not shy of using tourism as a tool of statecraft to reward friends and punish critics, Stratfor, a U.S. based geopolitical intelligence company, warned recently. Beijing directs tourism flows by granting countries Approved Destination Status. “This designation regulates where Chinese package tour groups are authorized to go and how tours are marketed in mainland China,” says Stratfor.

And that can make a considerable trickle-or-flood difference in the numbers.

In 2017, Beijing managed to reduce by more than half the number of Chinese tourists traveling to South Korea to punish Seoul for deploying the U.S.-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system.

Investment opportunities

Tourism, though, is not at the top of Xi Jinping’s agenda for his stop in Rome. Italy is considering joining Beijing’s global trade and infrastructure program, informally known as the New Silk Road and formally as The Belt and Road Initiative, BRI.

A giant trillion-dollar trade, investment and infrastructure project, the BRI is Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy and since 2013 Beijing has already invested nearly $700 billion into more than 60 countries.

Much of the investment is in the form of large-scale infrastructure loans to down-at-heel governments and the idea as outlined by the Chinese leader was to draw these countries closer to Beijing while boosting Chinese soft power abroad.

Some analysts see a parallel with tourism when it comes to the BRI. The enormous investment project can easily, they argue, be leveraged for political influence — much as China has done on a smaller scale with tourism.

In Rome this week, the cash-strapped Italian government is due to sign a memorandum of understanding to participate in Xi’s signature program, allowing China’s interests into sectors like telecoms and ports. Italy would become the first G7 country to participate formally in the BRI.

And that is alarming both Washington and EU leaders, who are growing wary of Beijing’s burgeoning clout on a Continent allied to the U.S.

A dozen EU countries, including Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia, have already signed MoUs with Beijing.

“On the surface, Rome’s official participation in Beijing’s trillion-dollar venture is purely an economic issue between the two nations. In reality, however, it is not that simple,” according to Xuan Loc Doan, an analyst the Global Policy Institute, a London-based think tank on international affairs.

“Some regard it as a strategic tool for Beijing to extend its sphere of influence. For others, instead of empowering participating countries, the scheme puts some of them under huge debt,” he wrote in a commentary.

Expanding influence

In a recent summit on the New Silk Road, Helmut Scholz, a German member of the European Parliament, noted: “The BRI is often compared to the Marshall Plan. However, the New Silk Road will mainly provide loans, and not grants, unlike the Marshall Plan. It means those loans will have to repaid.” He worries that the BRI will lead countries that take loans into a debt trap, which can then be used for political leverage by Beijing.

The European Parliament in September warned that the infrastructure projects under China’s massive program “could create large debts” for European countries that take BRI loans.

Chinese officials dispute the criticism, arguing that it is a project that can help solve some of the most daunting challenges faced by mankind. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, says “the initiative is a perfect example of China sharing its own wisdom and solutions for global growth and governance.”

The Italian move to sign on for BRI has angered the European Commission, which earlier this month dubbed China “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”

That followed a warning from the National Security Council in the White House, which tweeted on March 9, “Endorsing BRI lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment and will bring no benefits to the Italian people.”

Italy’s unruly populist coalition government has been divided about whether to sign a BRI agreement with Beijing. Much of the drive behind lies with Italy’s sputtering economy. The coalition leaders made many costly promises to voters in last year’s elections — promises they cannot keep, from improving state pensions to giving all Italians a ‘living wage.’

The country’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, has endeavored to walk a middle way, telling the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Italy remains firmly a good friend to the U.S., but he cannot see why that should stop the Italian government from signing an agreement with China. “I think it can be an opportunity for our country,” Conte said.

But trying to have it both ways may not work. Coalition leaders, right-wing populist Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star party, are ideological bedfellows of the Trump administration. However their willingness to cosy up to Beijing at the same time is adding to their reputation of being contradictory and unreliable, say U.S. officials.

“The inevitable result will be a cooling of relations between Washington and Rome,” predicts a U.S. diplomat based in Rome.

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Spain this month marked the 15th anniversary of the 2004 train bombings that killed 193 people with calls to reopen investigations into the deadliest terrorist attack in the kingdom’s history, amid allegations the government covered up links between jihadist bombers and the Basque separatist group, ETA.

Spain’s highest jurisdictional court, the Audencia Nacional, announced last week it is instructing the attorney general to review classified information on the bombings and consider new evidence. Officials with the attorney general’s office have said they are forming a task force with about 200 law enforcement officers to handle the extensive analysis and security work that may be required if the the politically-charged case is reopened.

At remembrance services in Madrid, conservative opposition leader Pablo Casado called on the government to “declassifiy any information that helps get to the truth, which,” he warned,  “someone may try to conceal or use in some way.”

Jose Luis Avalos, a spokesman for the Socialist government, accused Casado of playing politics with the suffering of victims and said the conservative Popular Party had “built a great lie” around  the terrorist attacks that took place when it was in power.

At the time of the bombings, Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar initially blamed ETA.  Evidence later surfaced pointing to Islamic terrorists as the ones who put a total of ten explosive devices on commuter trains and at rail stations in various parts of Madrid, all going off within minutes of each other.  

Bombings just before elections

The attacks took place just three days before scheduled general elections which the socialists won handily by campaigning on the Aznar government’s  failure to identify the perpetrators of one of the worst terror attacks to ever hit Europe.

Al-Qaida claimed the coordinated bombings were punishment for Spain’s alliance with the United States and Britain for the invasion of Iraq in the second Gulf War. Immediately upon replacing Aznar, Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero withdrew the 5,000 troops that Spain had contributed to the U.S.-led multi-national force in Iraq. 

An investigation conducted under the socialist government assigned full blame for the bombings to a group of about 20 mostly Moroccan-born suspects who had records as petty criminals and drug dealers and who authorities said had been recruited by al-Qaida in Spain.

Some analysts have since cast doubts on the investigation, which critics say fell short of explaining how the attacks were organized and ignored evidence pointing to possible involvement by the Basque separatist group. 

“Zapatero did not allow the security services and the attorney general to weave the threads leading  to ETA  because it wouldn’t fit his needle hole,”  charged investigative journalist Luis del Pino, who has written a book and made a documentary on the bombings.

Link to ETA

The head of the Islamic cell charged with conducting the train bombings, Jamal Ahmidan, operated for years as an underworld drug dealer and gunman in the Basque city San Sebastian, an ETA stronghold.

Suarez Trashorras, the supplier of stolen dynamite used in the attacks, told police that Ahmidan had said he knew two members of ETA who had been arrested while moving tons of explosives days before he picked up the dynamite, according to the newspaper El Mundo.  

Ahmidan died along with the six other suspected train bombers when an explosion demolished their hideout during a siege by police. 

But a forensic analysis that raised suspicions of possible ETA links was omitted from an official report on the bombings submitted to a Spanish judge  leading the investigations in 2005 according to police officials. The same sources have told  journalists that traces of boric acid found at an apartment rented by one of the bombers had been only been detected previously at an ETA safe house.

Missing information

The analysts said that it was a rare method used to preserve or conceal explosives from detection. 

“This brings us  to the possibility that the author (or) authors of these acts are related among each other and/or may have had the same type of formation  and/or could be the same authors,” according to the forensic report prepared by the police scientific unit that later turned up among documents requested by former interior minister Alfredo Rubalcaba.

Former National Police Director General Agustin Diaz de Mera has said that police officials who elaborated the official report left out the information due to “political pressures.”

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Spanish far-right party Vox has signed up three former generals to run for parliament in next month’s general election, two of whom expressed support for the legacy of former right-wing dictator Francisco Franco by signing a petition last year. 


The inclusion of openly pro-Franco candidates with senior military backgrounds underscores the ground that Vox has broken in a country that had largely shied away from far-right, militaristic politics since Franco’s rule ended with his death in 1975. 


Former Gens. Agustin Rosety and Alberto Asarta will run as parliamentary candidates for the provinces of Cadiz and Castellon, Vox said. Another former general, Manuel Mestre, is running in Alicante, according to the party. Vox had already enlisted another general to run for mayor in Palma de Mallorca. 


Rosety and Asarta signed a manifesto last year in support of Franco’s legacy, including the military uprising that ignited the 1936-39 Spanish civil war and resulted in his rule until 1975. 


Asarta signed the manifesto last year, according to a copy of it, while Rosety has signed it subsequently, said local media.  

The manifesto, which was has been signed by about 600 former members of the armed forces, was issued as a response to the Socialist government’s plans to remove Franco’s remains from a state mausoleum outside Madrid, according to the promoters. The mausoleum has long been seen by critics as a monument to fascism. 


Latest opinion polls show support for Vox, which opposes gender equality laws and immigration and has a strong stance against independence for Spain’s regions, as high as 12.1 percent. That could translate into 38 seats in the national parliament at the April 28 election. 


Vox grabbed attention last year when it became the first far-right party in Spain in more than four decades to score an electoral victory, winning seats in a local election in Andalusia. 


The Franco mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen has long been a source of controversy. The Socialist government said last Friday that the dictator’s body would be removed on June 10 and reburied in the family tomb at a state cemetery outside Madrid.

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Canada will keep a 200-strong military training mission in Ukraine for another three years to help domestic security forces handle continuing tensions with Russia, Ottawa said on Monday.

The Canadian troops, who first went to Ukraine in September 2015, had been due out at the end of March but will now stay until March 2022. News of the extension was first reported by Reuters on Sunday.

“Ongoing insecurity in the region underscores the importance and relevance of Canada’s military mission,” the government said in a statement.

The Canadian training “directly helps Ukraine’s defense and security forces to uphold domestic security and territorial integrity”, it added.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is a vocal critic of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The peninsula had previously been part of Ukraine.

The Canadians are in western Ukraine, far removed from clashes between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

They have trained more than 10,800 members of the Ukrainian security forces, the statement said. The troops are part of a larger mission that involves the United States, Britain, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden.

Ottawa also said it would extend a lower-profile training mission in Iraq, where Canada has around 250 personnel. They will now remain in place until March 2021.

“The Canadian Armed Forces will continue to provide training, advice, and assistance to the Iraqi security forces,” the statement said.

Last November Canada assumed command of NATO Mission Iraq, a new non-combat training and capacity building endeavor.

In late 2016 Canadian officials said the trainers – who at that point were operating with Kurdish forces in northern Iraq – had clashed several dozen times with Islamic State militants over the course of a month.

Since then several major offensives in Iraq and Syria pushed Islamic State back and it now occupies a tiny plot of territory in Syria.

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A few months after teen shooters killed 12 classmates and her father at Columbine High School, Coni Sanders was standing in line at a grocery store with her young daughter when they came face to face with the magazine cover.

It showed the two gunmen who had carried out one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Sanders realized that few people knew much about her father, who saved countless lives. But virtually everyone knew the names and the tiniest of details about the attackers who carried out the carnage.

In the decades since Columbine, a growing movement has urged news organizations to refrain from naming the shooters in mass slayings and to cease the steady drumbeat of biographical information about them. Critics say giving the assailants notoriety offers little to help understand the attacks and instead fuels celebrity-style coverage that only encourages future attacks.

The 1999 Colorado attack continues to motivate mass shooters, including the two men who this week stormed their former school in Brazil, killing seven people.

The gunman who attacked two mosques in New Zealand on Friday, killing at least 49 people, was said to have been inspired by the man who in 2015 killed nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama, who has studied the influence of media coverage on future shooters, said it’s vitally important to avoid excessive coverage of gunmen.

“A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities. They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment,” he said.

The notion hit close to home for Sanders. Seemingly everywhere she turned — the grocery store, a restaurant, a newspaper or magazine — she would see the faces of the Columbine attackers and hear or read about them. Even in her own home, she was bombarded with their deeds on TV.

Everyone knew their names. “And if you said the two together, they automatically knew it was Columbine,” Sanders said. “The media was so fascinated — and so was our country and the world — that they really grasped onto this every detail. Time and time again, we couldn’t escape it.”

Criminologists who study mass shootings say the vast majority of shooters are seeking infamy and soak up the coverage as a guide.

Just four days after the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting, which stands as the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, Lankford published a paper urging journalists to refrain from using shooters’ names or going into exhaustive detail about their crimes.

These attackers, he argued, are trying to outdo previous shooters with higher death tolls. Media coverage serves only to encourage copycats.

Late last year, the Trump administration’s federal Commission on School Safety called on the media to refrain from reporting the names and photos of mass shooters. It was one of the rare moments when gun-rights advocates and gun-control activists agreed.

“To suggest that the media alone is to blame or is primarily at fault for this epidemic of mass shootings would vastly oversimply this issue,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel for the Giffords Law Center, which works to curb gun violence.

Skaggs said he is “somewhat sympathetic to journalists’ impulse to cover clearly important and newsworthy events and to get at the truth. … But there’s a balance that can be struck between ensuring the public has enough information … and not giving undue attention to perpetrators of heinous acts.”

Studies show a contagion effect from coverage of both homicides and suicides.

The Columbine shooters, in particular, have an almost cult-like status, with some followers seeking to emulate their trench-coat attire and expressing admiration for their crime, which some have attributed to bullying. The gunman in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting kept a detailed journal of decades’ worth of mass shootings.

James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University who has studied mass shootings, said naming shooters is not the problem. Instead, he blamed over-the-top coverage that includes irrelevant details about the killers, such as their writings and their backgrounds, that “unnecessarily humanizes them.”

“We sometimes come to know more about them — their interests and their disappointments — than we do about our next-door neighbors,” Fox said.

Law enforcement agencies have taken a lead, most recently with the Aurora, Illinois, police chief, who uttered just once the name of the gunman who killed five co-workers and wounded five officers last month.

“I said his name one time for the media, and I will never let it cross my lips again,” Chief Kristen Ziman said in a Facebook post.

Some media, most notably CNN’s Anderson Cooper, have made a point of avoiding using the name of these gunmen.

The Associated Press names suspects identified by law enforcement in major crimes. However, in cases in which the crime is carried out seeking publicity, the AP strives to restrict the mention of the name to the minimum needed to inform the public, while avoiding descriptions that might serve a criminal’s desire for publicity or self-glorification, said John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president and editor-at-large for standards.

For Caren and Tom Teves, the cause is personal. Their son Alex was among those killed in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012.

They were both traveling out of state when the shooting happened, and it took 15 hours for them to learn the fate of their son. During those hours, they heard repeatedly about the shooter but virtually nothing about the victims.

Not long after, they created the No Notoriety movement, encouraging media to stick to reporting relevant facts rather than the smallest of biographical details. They also recommend publishing images of the shooter in places that are not prominent, steering clear of “hero” poses or images showing them holding weapons, and not publishing any manifestos.

“We never say don’t use the name. What we say is use the name responsibly and don’t turn them into anti-heroes,” Tom Teves said. “Let’s portray them for what they are: They’re horrible human beings that are completely skewed in their perception of reality, and their one claim to fortune is sneaking up behind you and shooting you.”

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Serbia’s president pledged Sunday to defend the country’s law and order a day after opposition supporters stormed the national TV station, protesting what they called his autocratic rule and biased grip on the country’s media.

The opposition clashes with police on Saturday and Sunday in Belgrade, the capital, were first major incidents after months of peaceful protests against populist President Aleksandar Vucic. The demonstrators are demanding his resignation, fair elections and a free media.

As Vucic held a news conference Sunday in the presidency building in downtown Belgrade, thousands of opposition supporters gathered in front demanding his resignation and trapping him in the building for a few hours.

Skirmishes with riot police were reported, including officers firing tear gas against the protesters who sought to form a human chain around the presidency to prevent Vucic from leaving the building.

The pro-government Pink TV showed a photo of Vucic playing chess with the interior minister apparently inside the presidency. Vucic posted a video message on Instagram, saying “I’m here and I won’t move from a place they want to occupy.”

Later, he was seen leaving the building as most of the protesters dispersed from the scene.

“They (protesters) have no power, can do nothing … as you can see, they have no courage, no courage for anything,” Vucic said as he got into his car. “Nothing will come of it, nothing.”

Police said they were attacked and arrested several demonstrators. The interior minister said the protest leaders must be “processed” as soon as possible.

The crowd, however, chanted “He is finished!” at Vucic, which was the slogan of the October 2000 uprising that led to the ouster of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, architect of the country’s bloody wars with its neighbors during the early 1990s.

During his televised address, Vucic repeatedly branded opposition leaders as “fascists, hooligans and thieves.”

“There will be no more violence,” Vucic said. “Serbia is a democratic country, a country of law and order and Serbia will know how to respond.”

Vucic tried to downplay the protesters’ numbers, insisting that only about 1,000 people had gathered, saying “they think they have the right, 1,000 of them, to determine the fate of the country.”

He has also claimed support from outside the capital, saying people are ready to come to Belgrade to defend him.

Serbian riot police on Saturday night removed hundreds of people, including opposition leaders, who stormed the state-run TV headquarters in Belgrade to denounce the broadcaster, whose reporting they consider highly biased.

Serbia’s weekly anti-government protests began after thugs beat up an opposition politician in November. A former extreme nationalist, Vucic now says he wants to lead Serbia into the European Union.

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The deadly mass shooting at New Zealand mosques has prompted an outpouring of grief and rekindled dialogue and reflections about confronting hate and xenophobia in communities spanning the globe, including in the United States. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where stopping the spread of hate messaging in the digital age is a topic of renewed discussion.

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As rising nationalism and the crisis surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union intensify divisions on the continent, a new exhibit in the French capital looks instead at a powerful unifier: Music.

The music the came with the postwar colonial migrations helped turn two of Europe’s most important hubs, London and Paris, into multicultural melting pots.

Rhythm and blues, reggae, rai and rock ’n’ roll — Europe and other Western regions got world music long before the term was invented. Even the Beatles were much more than a British brand — borrowing from Asia and sometimes West Africa.

How it blended into popular culture today is a central theme of a new exhibit that examines three decades of post-war migration to Paris and London — through music.

France and Britain needed extra manpower to fuel their fast-growing economies. They got it from former colonies that had just achieved independence. For immigrants in Paris, it was a tough beginning.

“Immigrants lived in special areas, what we call foyers,” said Stephane Malfettes. “There were a lot of strikes in the foyers de travelers. They were working in factories during the day — sharing the life of everybody — but at the end of the day, they vanished in their foyers.”


WATCH: Post-Colonial Migration to London, Paris Traced Via Music

Malfettes is the curator of the exhibit that opened this week at the Paris Museum of Immigration History. He says the immigrants were initially sidelined from France’s mainstream musical scene, as well. Things changed in the 1970s.

“The music became a very strong protest in the public space as an instrument of revolt and protest,” he said.

Across the English Channel, migrants in London also faced racism. But Martin Evans, another exhibit curator, said they were introducing the city to ska and reggae from Jamaica, music from East Africa, and calypso from Trinidad and Tobago.

“They become profoundly London,” Evans said. “And in a sense, I think that’s a measure of how much this migration has transformed London by the end of the 1980s.”

The parents of British musician and filmmaker Don Letts immigrated to Britain from Jamaica as part of the so-called Windrush generation. He says they wanted to integrate by denying their roots. It didn’t work.

“Ironically, it was their culture, particularly their music, that would capture the imagination of the white working-class kids,” he said. “And it was our culture that would actually help us to integrate with society.”

Letts says the cultural exchange went both ways.

“I was inspired by a lot of things that I grew up with. I grew up digging the Stones, the Beatles, Bowie, Roxy Music and all the rest of it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Paris by the 1980s had become a hub for African music — singers like Papa Wemba, Khaled, Youssou Ndour and Salif Keita. Music producer Martin Meissonnier was among their earliest fans — and producer for some of the biggest artists.

“Out of pleasure I was discovering all these new musics, and I thought it was a gold mine. It was fascinating. It was all these incredible bands,” Meissonnier said.

The musical fusion has left a powerful imprint on today’s artists. And it has changed not only how we think about music, but about each other.

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